Gay, religious, and proud in Tel Aviv.

gay pride tel aviv“Pinkwashing”—the calculated exploitation by Israel’s government of the LGBTQ community’s hard-won  civil and social gains as a beard for the human rights abuses of the occupation—is a thing. It’s real, it’s documented, and the sheer cynicism becomes even clearer when we consider that the government that conducted a PR campaign around gay-friendly Tel Aviv is the same government that gives disproportionate power to religious parties that reject all that Gay Pride stands for.

But what is also a thing, what is also real, is Israel’s actual LGBTQ community, and the joyous celebration that is Tel Aviv’s Gay Pride Week—a multi-hued happening to which people travel from all over the world, because it’s a blast. Witness the fact that this year’s “Official Video of Tel Aviv Pride Week” (which, okay, I admit: I did not knowthat was a thing) is performed by the straight and wildly popular Mizrahi singer Omer Adam (video below). Gay or straight, Pride is one of the best weeks of the year to be in the city that I still consider my home.

The big event is, of course, the parade itself, which will take place on Friday. It’ll feature all the usual suspects—Adonises and Amazons in itty-bitty clothes; rainbow flags, clothes, and hair; the famous and the wanna-be. But participants will also find a quieter, ultimately more subversive presence, as well:

Havruta, the organization for religious gay men, and Bat Kol, the organization for religious lesbian women, have been marching in Pride parades in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa for the past four years.

“In the past few years, we realized we bring a different and unique voice to the march, especially in Tel Aviv,” says one of Havruta’s chairmen, Daniel Jonas, explaining how their presence helps bridge Judaism and the LGBT community. “We represent something else, more moderate, more communal,” he says.

He admits that the parade’s debauched atmosphere doesn’t totally jive with their taste – “It’s not exactly something you’d see in a synagogue” – but the visibility is important.

“Pride attracts many people and lots of media,” Jonas points out. “So many young religious people around the country are exposed to us. After Pride every year, I get tons of calls from people who realize they can contact someone.”

As wonderful as Pride Week is, it’s typically a week apart, much like the community doing all the dancing. Though there has been real movement, across the globe, toward the recognition of the civil and human rights of the LGBTQ community, we still have a mighty long way to go, not least in not insisting that the people line up neatly with the colorful stereotypes. As Haaretz reporter Brian Schaefer notes, “the delegation of proud, God-fearing religious gays and lesbians appearing in the parade… remind us that sexuality and spirituality are not mutually exclusive.”

Indeed, they are not. I would even suggest that they are, or can be, deeply and essentially linked, and that it is a mitzvah of the first order for straight Jews to welcome our LGBTQ brothers and sisters with open arms, and stand with them in their struggles.

The Jewish and LGBTQ narratives share a crucial parallel: The personal, in-the-flesh knowledge of being a stranger in a strange land. I’m grateful to Havruta and Bat Kol for their participation in Tel Aviv’s Pride events—they’re praying with their feet, and likely saving Jewish lives as they go.

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P.S. For my money, the single most “Tel Avivi” moment of the video comes at the very end, when the performers happen to run into a couple of women just doing their morning yoga.

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Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

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3 Comments

  1. Neocortex

     /  June 9, 2013

    I enjoyed one of Tel Aviv’s gay bars during my Birthright trip, as well as the “gay” (more accurately LGBTQ?) beach. Though I am still wondering what mischievous person decided that the gay beach and the ultra-Orthodox beach should be next to each other!

    Being on an LGBTQ/allies Birthright trip, we got to interact quite a lot with the local LGBTQ population. All of our mifgash folks (off-duty IDF age peers who spend half of the trip with the Birthright participants) were gay/lesbian (no bi or trans, though some talked about bi and trans friends). They were from a very wide variety of backgrounds in terms of religiosity, Ashkenazi vs Sephardi vs Mizrahi, and political views. Our tour guide was a gay man from Tel Aviv’s Florentine district, our Shabbat service was performed by a lesbian rabbi with a partner and child who lived in the suburbs of Jerusalem. We went to gay bars in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and went to the LGBTQ community center in Jerusalem, where we met several other LGBTQ locals, including a gay Palestinian Muslim man who talked very candidly about the difficulties of being gay and also Palestinian and facing oppression from both communities because of it. We unfortunately spent a couple of nights staying at an ultra-Orthodox commune where some of us had some homophobia and misogyny directed our way. It was an interesting look into queer life, the good and the bad, in Israel and the occupied territories, with quite varied perspectives (interestingly, the lesbian rabbi and her own partner, who were both immigrants to Israel and came from different ethnic/national backgrounds and had different gender expressions, had very different ideas about the level of acceptance in Israeli society).

    One of the most striking (and unplanned) incidents was when we were at Mount Herzl Cemetery (for the uninitiated, this is sort of like Israel’s version of Arlington National Cemetery, fallen military members are buried there). When we got to the plot for the most recent graves, our mifgash folks started to stage a reenactment of the ceremony that they would perform during a funeral. We noticed that one was missing, and spotted the young woman sitting by one of the newest graves, sobbing. She told us that this was a close friend of hers who had been killed in a freak accident while representing the IDF in an Israeli Independence Day parade. As she was telling the story, she also told us that the dead friend was bisexual, and that mainstream media coverage of the story had mentioned and interviewed her ex-boyfriend, but ignored her current girlfriend. She felt that her friend’s identity as a queer person had been erased in death by Israeli societal institutions in order to make the story more mainstream-palatable.

  2. jeff

     /  August 20, 2013

    My partner and I are travelling to Israel in October. We are looking for a gay travel guide in Tel Aviv/ Jerusalem. Does anyone have a name that they can recommend? Thx

    • This post is a little old so may not get responses from readers, but I will do a little poking around and come back with a suggestion or two in this space, in the next day or two.

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